Norma Jean undergoes a transformation during the course of “Shiloh,” changing from a stunted housewife into a woman taking steps toward complete independence. Before the story opens, Norma Jean played a traditional feminine role, keeping the home fires burning and plying her husband with food and entertainment when he returned from his long trips. When the story begins, she is chafing under the yoke of her wifely duties. Leroy’s presence weighs on her. After so much time spent away, he seems like a stranger, someone who does not understand her. She has begun to improve her mind and her body, taking weightlifting classes and eating healthily. As the story progresses, she enrolls in night school and stays up late studying instead of going to bed early, as she used to do. She admits that she might not tell Leroy if she were having an affair. She clashes with her overbearing mother, who is baffled by the changes in her daughter.
Far from portraying this transformation as a smooth forward movement, Mason stresses Norma Jean’s confusion and self-doubt. When Mabel catches her smoking, Norma Jean weeps. She lets Mabel rattle her with the story of the baby-killing dachshund. She tackles night school but writes essays about casseroles, a symbol of her former existence as a simple housewife. In the climactic scene during which Norma Jean says she wants to leave Leroy, she confusedly traces the change back to the day her mother caught her smoking, says she doesn’t want to feel like a child anymore, and decides that she was unhappy even before the smoking incident. In the end, she says she doesn’t know what she means. The scene presents a microcosm of Norma Jean’s mentality: she is able to be braver and speak her mind more freely than she could as a young woman, but she is still insecure. She makes great gains during the course of the story, but the process of self-discovery is slow, painful, and unfinished.